The Red Herrings Of Digital That Kept Marketers Spending

You all know what a red herring is, right? It’s a dried, smoked fish, turned red by the smoke. But I’m not here to talk about the fish. I’m here to talk about the red herrings in digital marketing – the “fish” that distracted marketers for years so they would keep spending in digital, thinking they were doing marketing. And there sure are a lot of red fish that I’ve seen over the years. 

Mo’ Fish, Mo’ Betta’

Marketers just love “more.” But instead of focusing on more sales, they tend to focus on easier-to-measure vanity metrics like more ad impressions, more clicks, more traffic, etc. More of these “red fish” don’t necessarily lead to more business outcomes, which should be the objective of marketing programs. Too obvious? Right, I agree. But consider what marketers are receiving month after month from the agencies they allow to spend their money for them — excel spreadsheets that report on the number of impressions, clicks, and possibly traffic. Do those spreadsheets track all the way through to sales impact? Of course some do; but from what I have seen those are the exception, not the rule. 

In recent years, the love of “more” has also led marketers to buy more reach and more targeting parameters in programmatic advertising. They bought into the idea that if their ads were shown on thousands more long-tail sites that they would reach more potential customers. Mo’ ads to mo’ users means mo’ betta’ right? They were also convinced by ad tech companies that more targeting parameters would be mo’ betta’ too — like 10 targeting parameters is better than 3, 20 is better than 10, and so on. Of course those ad tech companies were selling the data for targeting, and they would make more money when marketers bought more targeting parameters. But studies and common sense over the years, have shown that more targeting does not necessarily yield better business outcomes, because the targeting data may not even be that accurate to begin with

The Fish “Must Be 100% Viewable”

When many, many, many more ads in digital were not yielding any more business outcomes, marketers started to look around for the reason why. Conveniently, the digital advertising trade associations pointed them to the red herring of “viewability.” That seemed to make a lot of sense. After all, if an ad did not have the opportunity to be seen (was not “viewable”), it could not have driven any business outcomes, right? Marketers jumped all over this and spent the next seven years agreeing on a standard for viewability, buying services from viewability measurement companies, renegotiating contracts to include “must be 100% viewable” clauses, etc. It made them feel like they were taking bold action, and accomplishing better marketing. 

What they didn’t realize was that this was a boon for fraudsters. Fraudulent sites always had higher viewability than real publisher sites. This was because the fraudsters, cheaters that they are, simply used malicious code or other tricks to make all their inventory 100% viewable. By insisting on the red herring of “100% viewable” marketers and the media agencies (like GroupM) that bought digital media for them, actually increased the amount of dollars going to fraudulent websites. It also reduced the dollars going to legitimate publishers whose page layouts meant that a certain portion of their inventory was not viewable when a webpage first loads. For example, if a page had 3 ads on it, and 2 were above-the-fold, and 1 was at the bottom, the page would have a starting viewability of 66%. Good publishers with these types of page layouts saw 33% of their inventory become unsellable in an instant, because it wasn’t deemed “viewable” at the start. This money went to fraud sites instead.  

This red herring harmed good publishers and helped fraudsters make more money. 

The Fish “Must Be Fraud Free”

Once marketers realized that there were fraudulent sites using fraudulent traffic to generate fraudulent ads to steal their budgets fraudulently, they started to chase the next red herring – “fraud free” ad inventory. By now, any reader should realize that this is no more than a red-hued smoked fish. Fake sites use bot traffic that is disguised to look real. The problem is compounded by the fact that so-called fraud verification tech services could not detect them as not real. So the marketers paid extra for fraud verification services, put their own minds at ease, and kept buying more ads thinking there was low IVT (invalid traffic). They became the butt of bad guy jokes; fraudsters were laughing at how gullible the marketers were in continuing to buy ads from 100% fake sites with 100% bot traffic that were marked as “fraud free” by the detection services. Don’t believe me? Just google the phrase “buy real human traffic” and note the hundreds of traffic sellers that offered bot traffic guaranteed to pass fraud detection as “valid.” 

This red herring caused marketers to keep buying more ads, thus guaranteeing job security and revenue for fraudsters up and down the digital ad supply chain. 

The Fish “Must Be Brand Safe”

Marketers then found out that their ads were still being shown on porn, piracy, hate speech, fake news, disinformation, and worse sites. Those ads were still marked as “fraud free” (i.e. no bots), but marketers would be embarrassed if their ads showed up next to “not brand safe content” like news about the coronavirus or protests. What a convenient red herring for “brand safety detection” companies to sell more services and make more money from gullible marketers. They even got a helping hand from their friendly neighborhood trade association which set up the Brand Safety Institute. BSI boasts hundreds of marketers, signed up and trained, and touts brand safety as a key priority for marketers to focus on. Red herring. 

Like the two examples above, brand safety detection tech doesn’t work as well as the companies pitching it say they do. This became painfully obvious earlier this year, when major advertisers’ ads were blocked on major publishers’ sites – like Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, etc. They were blocked because the pages contained words like “coronavirus” or “Covid-19.” This revealed that the brand safety tech, touted to use machine learning and artificial intelligence, could do no more than simple keyword matching and blocking. It was not nearly as advanced as the companies made it out to be. So marketers that pay for brand safety detection should not assume that it detects brand safety issues correctly and prevents your ads from going on sites that are undesirable, not to mention these “brand safety” issues could be solved by using a strict include-list of sites to begin with. 

What About Pickled Herring?

Don’t even get me started on pickled herring. As should be obvious by now, marketers have been distracted by red herrings for the better part of the last two decades. Each red herring made them think they were being progressive and taking bold action. But alas those were all still herrings, smoked or otherwise. The “buy 100% viewable” red herring made marketers spend more on fake sites, because fake sites tricked the viewability measurements and always had higher viewability than good publishers’ sites. The “buy fraud free” red herring made marketers spend more on fake sites, because fake sites tricked the fraud detection and always had valid impressions to sell. The “must be brand safe” red herring is making marketers spend more on long-tail websites via programmatic exchanges, not seeing any brand safety issues, while legitimate mainstream sites were blocked by the same brand safety detection tech. 

All of these red herrings, and there are many more that I haven’t mentioned, have led to marketers spending nearly a trillion dollars over the last two decades in digital marketing in the U.S. alone. I am not arguing that digital marketing does not work. But I am arguing that marketers who have been distracted by these red herrings have been spending a lot in digital, thinking they were doing marketing; but instead they were providing job security and perpetual revenue to fraudsters.

Quick, look at that red herring!

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